Delusion of Grandeur?

May 24th, 2016

The Presiding Bishop has just announced a search for a new staff person to be director of government relations. Based in Washington, one can only imagine the cost to the Episcopal Church of salary, housing, office rental, and support staff.

The price seems hard to justify when one considers that the Episcopal Church represents less than 1% of the U.S. population. And the expense seems even more extravagant when one realizes that the positions our church leaders take on the various political issues are unfailingly predictable.

The six figure sum that underwrites this governmental office could keep half a dozen churches from going under. Maybe that would be a better way to spend the church’s money. —J. Douglas Ousley

Jesus Lives

May 18th, 2016

Last night, an overflow gathering of the Men’s and Women’s Groups at Incarnation discussed the Historical Jesus–that is, what we know of the actual man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived at the beginning of the first century, A.D.

My associate and I discussed a recent book by Reza Aslan entitled, Zealot. I emphatically do NOT recommend the book, which rehashes old claims that Jesus was a political rebel who never intended to preach a theological message, much less leave behind a church.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the evening was the fact that our parishioners didn’t seem at all disturbed by the skeptical claims of Aslan’s book. It’s clear that in New York City, at least, the faithful aren’t upset by the attempts to undermine their views of Jesus.

Why is this? Perhaps laypeople have been so often disappointed by “experts” that they no longer rely automatically on their opinions. If one expert says Y today, another expert will say Z tomorrow. Laypeople realize that after 200 years of biblical criticism, the number of Christians still grows daily.

Meanwhile, after the meeting, as I walked to a restaurant for dinner, I glimpsed a glorious sunset. For me, this was an adequate rebuke of skepticism–and one that holds, whatever scholars say about the historical Jesus. —J. Douglas Ousley

Not Much Religion Left

May 11th, 2016

With the departure of Ted Cruz from the presidential race, the religious component now seems minimal. Hillary Clinton (Methodist) appears to be the most serious religious person in the contest but speaks little about family values and is resolutely pro-choice. Bernie Sanders (Jewish) seems pretty lukewarm about religion, and Donald Trump’s (Presbyterian) faith–like most aspects of his personality–is a matter of controversy.

If I were a card-carrying Evangelical or pro-life Roman Catholic, I would have no one to support. Some conservative Christians are urging a vote for Trump as “not-Hillary,” but many others find this too contrary to their principles.

Yet one more twist in a mystifying political season. —J. Douglas Ousley

Dark Matter and Dinosaurs

May 2nd, 2016

A new book by Harvard physicist, Lisa Randall, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs proposes a link between the mysterious “dark matter” near our galaxy and the extinction of the dinosaurs. The argument is complicated but, in essence, Randall argues that the dark matter occasionally (every 30 million years or so!) knocks asteroids orbiting our sun off course. It was one of these asteroids that hit the earth and caused the massive global cooling that killed off the large dinosaurs.

Randall’s book is straight (and very clearly-written) science. But the religious reader can’t help noting that once again, an apparent advance in science has made the universe look even more complicated than we thought. Professor Randall apologizes for the complication–but Christians may suspect that the marvels of creation will lead to wonder at the universe God has made. —J. Douglas Ousley

Ripple Effect

April 25th, 2016

A very active member of our parish, Ann Churchill, died on April 11; her funeral was last Saturday.

I was amazed at the response to her relatively sudden death–all the people Ann helped in one way or another over the years. Not just family and friends, but parishioners and old people and neighbors and community group members. The range of response was extraordinary for a seemingly modest 77-year-old former nurse.

Ann’s example shows among other things the powerful effect of a generous and creative Christian soul. May Ann rest in peace–and may we follow her fine example! —J. Douglas Ousley

Can You Believe There are Actually Unbelievers?

April 13th, 2016

As a judge on the TV show, The Voice, the popular singer and music producer Pharrell Williams often refers to Gospel and other Christian musical traditions. He describes himself as a kind of Universalist, though clearly coming from the Christian camp.

Asked once about “those who have concluded that God simply doesn’t exist”, Williams remarked: “It’s so incredibly arrogant and pompous. It’s amazing that there are people who really believe that.”

A good point. Given all that we know about the vast universe and the mysteries of the human soul, the notion that some divine force doesn’t exist seems to strain credulity. —J. Douglas Ousley

Spring Planting

April 4th, 2016

I recently had lunch with a senior church leader who was concerned about the number of Episcopal churches with declining memberships. Not the least of the problems of these parishes is their unwillingness to change. It’s no wonder that they have trouble growing.

The leader and I agreed that one way out of this dilemma was to try to “plant” new congregations either in closed churches or within existing small churches. This is proving very successful in London and some other dioceses in the Church of England. There is even a new bishop in London with special responsibility for starting new congregations.

I like the idea of planting within buildings we already have, since this strategy avoids the problem of finding a new space for worship and ministry. We may hope and pray that this idea catches on in the American Episcopal church. —J. Douglas Ousley


March 30th, 2016

TMI. “Too much information.” This expression is used when someone tells you more about themselves than you wanted to know–about their relationships, for example, or their health.

I would argue that we have too much information about the Resurrection–which is why the various New Testament accounts disagree in many details: how many angels were at the tomb on Easter morning, whether Jesus in his spiritual form could be touched, etc.

Yet the fact that we have all this information does, I would argue, add to the credibility of the witnesses. For disagreements among witnesses about details of an experience are common. Court cases frequently have conflicting testimony about the simplest events.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead was not a simple event. All the more reason to expect different stories from different witnesses. All the more reason to expect that the new life of Jesus will remain a cherished miracle beyond our grasp. —J. Douglas Ousley

By God’s Gift

March 25th, 2016

On Ash Wednesday, the blessing of the ashes concludes with these words: “that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.”

I don’t know whether non-Christians receive a life after death; I suppose I believe they do, though they may have to go through a period of post-mortem preparation for the life of Heaven.

But what is relevant to Christians is that eternal life is a gift of God. It’s not something we merit; it’s not something we can expect automatically. It’s a gift.

And that gift is part of the reason we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning. For he is, as St. Paul said, “the first fruits of them that slept”–the first person to rise into the glory of eternity, foreshadowing the potential we all are now given to inherit eternal life. So, as the hymn says, “Jesus lives, now no longer death enthralls us–Alleluia!” —J. Douglas Ousley

Only in New York

March 18th, 2016

As I have noted in past posts, our associate rector and I now offer blessings on Tuesday mornings from 9 to 9:30 to anyone passing by the front steps of the church.

Last Tuesday, I was on the steps, and so many people wanted to be blessed and prayed for that there was actually a small line. It struck me later that this was typical of New York City. When people see a line outside a store or a restaurant, they are tempted to join. If it’s worth waiting for, they reason, it must be good. —J. Douglas Ousley